What Would Google Do (in Government)?
January 27, 2010 8:14 PM   Subscribe

How do I encourage creativity and improve morale in a web team stuck in dead-end jobs?

The team I work with is young, energetic...and working for government. Which means low pay, no career development, lack of management support and vision, etc. They all could be working somewhere else if the economy were better. I want them to feel that in spite of the conditions, they can still be creative.

What can I do to encourage this? What can we do around the office to spice things up, make it more fun, unique and less governmental? We're starting to go out as a team once a month - bar-hopping, bowling, etc. But during the day, I'm looking for things that a Google or Apple might do. Obviously, being government, we can't bring in ping-pong tables and video games. So I'm looking for low-cost things - e.g., TED talks, even pirate flags on the cubicles a la the early days of Apple.
posted by adverb to Work & Money (18 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Could you get away with nerf weapons?

Silly putty, play-doh, slinkies, magic 8-balls, magic slates, coloring books, 10 minute charade games. Maybe do a weekly coloring contest?

Small fun things that can be hidden.
posted by fluffy battle kitten at 8:37 PM on January 27, 2010

Best answer: Speaking as a web developer (now freelance) myself:

I've never cared at all for team-building exercises or happy hour. At some jobs, my coworkers have been nice enough, but I've never wanted to see them outside of work. I have friends for that. (The occasional social event during regular work hours—lunch at a sushi place for someone's birthday, an office cookout on Friday—can be nice, though.)

For me, dress code is a huge thing. I hate, hate, hate business dress code (including "business casual", which is neither), and I love being able to show up in a (reasonably clean and inoffensive) T-shirt and jeans. A lot of hackers feel the same way.

By the same token, let your employees go nuts with their own space if they're so inclined—but don't try to encourage some specific thing, like pirate flags. And let them do utterly weird shit if they want to. Sometimes that's what it takes to chase away the grinding monotony that office work entails. (And if they prefer to leave their space plain and unremarkable, that's fine too.)

Again, like many hackers, I'm a certified caffeine addict. Good coffee is huge, and very hard to come by in the workplace. If there are coffee drinkers in your midst, rustle up a French press, a grinder, and a bag of decent beans. Informally recruit some people for coffee detail, so there's always a fresh cup available when it's needed. Caffeinated coders are productive coders.

See what you can do to make relatively healthy snacks available—fruit, veggies, trail mix, bready-type things. The steady diet of junk food is one of the things that killed me about office life.

Be flexible with hours if you can. Let some people come in earlier, or later. Everyone has a life outside of work, and everyone's situation is different: some people have kids, some don't; some have significant others, and those people have their own schedules; everyone's dealing with a different commute; some are just better able to focus and produce at different times.

Get this ant farm and set it up in a common area. Other geeky toys are also good to have around.

If you have gamers on your staff, and especially if you have access to a video projector, set up an after-hours gaming night. (We used to do this at quitting time on Fridays at one of my old jobs.) Someone can bring in a gaming console and a multiplayer game (shooters seem to work best), and your employees can blast each other and talk shit and blow off some steam.

The reason that Google and Apple's policies encourage creativity is because they allow their employees to be comfortable at work. That's what you're going for. The standard office environment, with its fluorescent lighting and shitty carpet and awkward furniture and vapid doublespeak and inconvenient clothing and crappy food and micromanagement of their employees' behavior, seems specifically designed to prevent comfort. Do whatever you can to combat that. Every cycle your employees spend being distracted by annoyance and discomfort is a cycle they're not spending on creativity.
posted by ixohoxi at 8:42 PM on January 27, 2010 [20 favorites]

Love what ixohoxi wrote. Perhaps to offer my summation of it: If it doesn't negatively effect their output, let people do whatever they want. The implementation of this requires you to truly outline to yourself and then to employees what "output" is.

Nerf items are not specifically the answer, nor is any specific thing or program. I recently visited my sister's design firm office; their nerf/xbox/cool motif was clearly forced and unnatural, and I got the vibe that everyone was just pretending.

My 2 cents: People take their lead from the boss, but only what the boss genuinely does. If the boss is genuinely motivated and positive, and shares that, it's contagious. If the boss is half-heartedly trying to rah-rah morale at the office, people will fake it too.
posted by Pertz at 9:37 PM on January 27, 2010 [2 favorites]

I recommend reading "First Break All the Rules". (wikipedia entry) It may help give you some insight about how to manage folks given what you have to work with right now, perceptions of jobs being dead-end or not.
posted by meinvt at 10:09 PM on January 27, 2010

I agree with ixohoxi and Pertz.

FWIW, I work a government web development job. I'm the ONLY web developer and I oversee 80+ sites for a bunch of different groups.

The most frustrating things about my job (some have been mentioned):

Dress code. We are required to wear a tie, slacks and dress shoes EVERY DAY. We get ONE Business Casual day every MONTH.

Work hours.
My boss is flexible in a "I need to go to an appointment" kind of way, but the department is absolutely against any sort of "longer days, half-day on Friday" kind of schedule.

Internet filtering. I know that your employees are there to work, but if they're giving you a lot of their time, are you also allowing them to keep track of their online lives? Our filter blocks the typical stuff, like myspace/youtube/facebook/chat but also blocks any blog or site with "blog" in the URL. Seriously. MeFi is blocked ("blogcked" is what I call it), any blogspot site is blocked (including google's official blogs), wordpress is blocked, etc.

The camaraderie thing is a tough one. I work with a group that has worked together for years. They go out for lunch together, play xbox live together, etc. I'm seldom invited. I mostly don't mind, since I bring my lunch to save $ and don't have an xbox, but it does get wearying when I'm the only one left to answer phones while everyone else is having a meal together. Be aware of odd-man-out situations.

That said, ask your employees what they'd like to do to have fun. [My department routinely announces potluck lunches and then cancels them due to lack of interest.] So find out what your employees would be interested in doing--lunchtime rockband tournament, laser tag night, fantasy sports (or if they're not sports guys, flickpicks), give them a little free reign in planning and see what they come up with.
posted by sleeping bear at 11:02 PM on January 27, 2010

I have worked on both dead-end and not-dead-end government projects as a software dev and the one thing that visibly improved morale and creative energy more than any other, across the board, was having a manager that was on our side and working for us. Ways in which you can be on my side include: Not making me do Powerpoint, ever. Spending political capital to buy me permission to do something technically sweet. Letting me learn and employ a new technology. Shielding me from jobsworth "stakeholders". Encouraging me to step up and own a problem or solution. Mentoring my career path. Giving me space to network with other engineers. Refusing to go along when the customer panics and asks for an ugly hack. Being calm when things are shitty. Brainstorming ways to fix deeply entrenched broken things.

If you provide build-a-brother-up leadership and employ ixohoxi's humane work environment approach, your web nerds will walk into fire for you.
posted by mindsound at 11:31 PM on January 27, 2010 [4 favorites]

Low cost?

Ice Cream Party. Have sherbet or sorbet for the lactose intolerant. Have toppings, cones, sprinkles, the works.
posted by spinifex23 at 11:36 PM on January 27, 2010

sleeping bear has a great point too -- government jobs absolutely have tons of ridiculous stuff that government lifers are totally resigned to and younger creative types hate beyond belief. Byzantine HR policies. Paperwork. Internet filtering. God, the internet filtering. Security rules. Training requirements. If you can help fight against any of that stuff, even if you don't win the fight you will earn trust and good cheer for being humane.
posted by mindsound at 11:42 PM on January 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

Help their career in different ways, by learning things which aren't explicitly for this position but will help them land their next job.

Watch MIT algorithms courses together, figure out a project (not for work, for fun) using processing or lua or another interesting but less common language. Read SICP together and do the excercises.
posted by cCranium at 4:39 AM on January 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

Try to get a training budget. Failing that, a weekly technical study group to learn an exciting or important technical skill.
posted by matildaben at 6:14 AM on January 28, 2010

Our once a month team meetings have items you give away to someone who deserves it for their hard work. But you could extend that to being funny, good personality, great dance moves, something more interesting than the "this person is always a good team player" (GAG!).

the object used to be something funny like a snowglobe with a picture of a cube mate or a silly hat. Now they've retired that to go for something more traditional--a journal with the special speech of thanks in it. Please don't go down that route. Wherever you can inject silliness, lightheartedness, please do. Anything that looks like one more thing that has gone corporate--or in your case gov. employee--is one more episode of the office and your employees will want to shove a pencil in their eye. (oh wait, that's just me).

Good luck and great job on trying to make things better.

Otherwise ask them what they would like--do a fun brainstorm.
posted by stormpooper at 6:38 AM on January 28, 2010

I'll also add that whatever you do to promote fun, don't institutionalize it. "It's Thursday, we all must go to the conference room and shoot Nerf guns at each other for an hour." "Tuesday - popsicle wagon will be here at 2:37pm." No. Do a fun thing one time. Do something different another time. Randomly do the first thing again if it was a big hit.

And yeah, fight hard for really relaxed dress code.
posted by CathyG at 6:50 AM on January 28, 2010 [2 favorites]

Personally I would suggest you discuss it with them. "I appreciate things here aren't exactly like Google or Apple, but what three things could I do for you to make it better?" My experience of good managers is they treat me as an intelligent adult with a valued viewpoint, rather than "resource" to be placated and humoured.
posted by BrokenEnglish at 7:46 AM on January 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

+1 for learning new things. Particularly things they can put on their resumes.

I had a boss who told us that was one of his goals, to get us to learn new skills that we could put on our resumes. This gave us the satisfaction of learning new things (while also making us a more powerful team for the company) and, counterintuitively, made us less likely to leave. If you're learning new things and building your resume, you're not getting left behind by staying in an otherwise dead-end job.
posted by dalesd at 9:49 AM on January 28, 2010

Is it more about morale or creativity?

Don't waste time trying to inject fun or esprit de corps if what you really want is creativity. Chances are, your web team is as creative as you'd like or need, if not for the many bureacratic constraints and limitations of doing government work.

There is nothing so creative or sublime that the government cannot castrate it. You won't see their very best because someone somewhere is sure to add to or take away from it...this is already entrenched in their approach, and trying to account for it from the start of a design can make the work look bland and powerless.

Just to refocus on creativity, give them a small project, if you have one with no urgent deadline, and say "do this exactly as you would like to do it for your own website, period," then see what they come up with. But you already know that you will never be able to use what they will produce.
posted by rahnefan at 10:08 AM on January 28, 2010

Plus it might take a few tries if they are no longer accustomed to thinking this way...
posted by rahnefan at 10:14 AM on January 28, 2010

We did a "skill sharing" type of thing at my office for a few months before it fizzled out. It was a sort of mini-seminar taught by a co-worker. So, if one of your employees is secretly a Photoshop pro, he could do a Q & A session full of tips and tricks casual users might not know. Someone here did one on Excel and it was incredibly helpful. You could expand the idea for skills that aren't directly work related, too, if someone has a hobbyish skill to share (photography, Garage Band).

The best part was that it made the listeners feel like they were developing new skills, and the teacher felt like a hot-shot (which they are!). Ours were during the lunch hour (people would brown-bag it, but bringing it food would be great if you have the budget) which is a good way to do not-exactly-work-related stuff that's during the work day.
posted by chowflap at 10:50 AM on January 28, 2010

Response by poster: Wow. These are all excellent, well-thought-out replies. I'm highlighting the bestest of the best. Thanks everyone!
posted by adverb at 9:54 AM on January 29, 2010

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